Scott Fowler

Virginia coach Tony Bennett returns to Charlotte - this time in the spotlight

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett holds up the net after defeating North Carolina in the championship game of the ACC tournament Saturday. Virginia is the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and is trying to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1984.
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett holds up the net after defeating North Carolina in the championship game of the ACC tournament Saturday. Virginia is the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and is trying to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1984. AP

The early 1990s were half a lifetime ago for Virginia coach Tony Bennett, and what a time they were.

Bennett played for the original Charlotte Hornets when the team ruled the Queen City, and he was on the court for what remains the biggest shot in franchise history.

“Basketball was such a big deal,” Bennett said this week when I asked him about his career with the Hornets, which began when the team picked him in the second round of the 1992 NBA draft. “The Panthers were not in town yet. So win or lose, the place was packed. The Hornets led the NBA in attendance every year.”

Now 48, Bennett returns to Charlotte this weekend. He is bringing with him his most successful University of Virginia team ever and will play in the first and second rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament.

Virginia (31-2) has already set a school record for wins and won both the ACC regular season and its tournament. The Cavaliers boast the NCAA tournament’s overall No. 1 seed for the first time and will begin play against No. 16 Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) Friday at 9:20 p.m. in the Spectrum Center.

Win that one, and Virginia will play against the Creighton-Kansas State winner on Sunday. Virginia is trying to qualify for the Final Four for the first time since 1984 – Bennett has yet to make an appearance there in his coaching career, either.

Met wife in Charlotte

Bennett was in his early 20s during his three-year career with the Hornets, and that brief time proved formative in his life. Most importantly, he met his future wife in Charlotte. Laurel worked as a youth minister at Forest Hill Church, where Bennett attended. The church’s longtime pastor, David Chadwick, along with his family would eventually become Bennett’s surrogate family in Charlotte.

Tony Bennett (left) played three seasons for the Charlotte Hornets before becoming a college coach. His latest Virginia Cavaliers team may be the one that gets Bennett to his first Final Four. Charlotte Observer File photo

Bennett wasn’t thinking about becoming a coach when he lived in Charlotte. A star guard who had played for his father Dick Bennett at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Bennett had shot an astonishing 49.7 percent from 3-point range as a collegian and just wanted a long NBA career. That career was short-circuited by recurring foot injuries, but not before Bennett became friends and teammates with players like Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Dell Curry and Muggsy Bogues.

“The excitement and passion for the Hornets was really unique,” Bennett said. “It was almost a college-type atmosphere, which you don’t often find at an NBA level. Alonzo, Larry, Muggsy, Dell - what a terrific time. It was fun to be part of that momentum, that excitement.”

Bennett was Bogues’ backup for most of his three seasons, averaging a modest 3.5 points, 2.0 assists and 12.4 minutes per game. But Bennett was on the court –subbed in for his shooting ability – when Mourning hit the last-second, 19-foot jumper that eliminated the Boston Celtics in the 1993 playoffs. If you watch the tape, Bennett ends up underneath the basket on Zo’s shot and then in the middle of the dog pile afterward.

There weren’t enough moments like that in Bennett’s pro playing career, though. After the 1995 season, he and the Hornets parted ways. He ended up playing basketball in New Zealand, where he also experimented with coaching. Before long, he had decided to become part of the family business.

3-time national coach of year

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Bennett has been named the national coach of the year three times (once at Washington State, twice at Virginia, where he took over in 2009). He runs a far different system than those grab-it-and-go teams that Allan Bristow coached in Charlotte in the early 1990s, however.

Virginia wins games mostly with a defense that puts a stranglehold on every game, clogging the middle and getting a hand in the face of every shooter. No team has scored 70 points on the Cavaliers all season. Virginia has ranked first in the NCAA in total defense four of the past five years (the other year they were second).

Call it boring basketball if you want – and sometimes it is - but a 31-2 record sure isn’t boring. The Cavaliers have won the ACC championship outright in three of the past five years. This year Virginia was unranked at the beginning of the season and picked to finish sixth in the ACC. Instead, the Cavaliers had the best regular season in America.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett has directed his team to three outright ACC regular-season championships in the past five years. The Cavaliers (31-2) have already set a school record for wins this season. Steve Helber AP

All is not perfect in Virginia’s world, however. Perhaps the best pro prospect on Virginia’s roster is sixth man De’Andre Hunter, but he has been declared out for the NCAA tournament with a broken wrist. That won’t matter much Friday night, when UMBC will be lucky to get to 50 points, but it will matter as the tournament progresses.

‘Downtown was just...’

The one black mark against Bennett in what has otherwise been a remarkable coaching career: his teams’ multiple failures in March. In a number of notable losses, the worst probably came in 2016. That Virginia team should have made the Final Four. But instead, No. 1 seed Virginia blew a 16-point second-half lead in the Elite Eight and lost to 10th-seeded Syracuse.

The Charlotte that Bennett returns to in 2018 is much different than the one he left in 1995.

“It was more of a banking town then,” Bennett said. “Downtown was just – well, there wasn’t a whole lot. Now I know that has changed.”

Bennett has changed, too. Instead of playing his role as an obscure point guard backing up one of the most popular players in the NBA – which the 5-foot-3 Bogues was in the early 1990s – he has become the head coach of a Virginia team that may well end up with a reach that even exceeds legendary center Ralph Sampson’s.

The Cavaliers have to get through Charlotte first.

But this really could be – and maybe should be –Virginia’s year.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler